During the winter I like to get a jump on my gardens by working the soil and fixing any problems that may have occurred over the planting season. In order to fix problems, you’ll first need to know what soil type you’re working with – there are three main types.
What makes these types of soil what they are and how do we fix them naturally if they aren’t what we need? Read on!
The three main types of soil are sand, silt and clay. Loam is a combination of all of these.
All soil is made up of rock particles in different sizes along with organic matter and possibly other things. Rock is usually large, such as gravel. In smaller pieces, it is known as sand. Go even smaller and you have silt and finally, very tiny pieces are known as clay.
Natural Fixes for Problem Soils
I’ve included gravel as a fourth soil type as this is where most all soil comes from. Planting can be done in gravel, but it lacks the smaller structure that plant roots prefer. You can add some clay and organic matter to gravel, but many times the pieces are just too large. Remove any rocks that are more than two inches in size for optimum root production. Winter may help facilitate breaking up of gravel with freeze/crack. This is when ice melts in the winter causing water runoff. Some of this water is trapped in the rock, refreezing at night. The expansion from the resulting ice causes the rock to crack.
Sand may seem easier to work with because it drains well, but it’s trickier than you might think. Sand particles are larger and do facilitate drainage, but when totally saturated, they form dense mats of water. Much of Florida is sand and I’ve seen the results of too much water. The sand fills up and when totally saturated, it forms what’s known as “sheet flow.” This is when a large amount of water in sand moves on it’s own. For crops, it can be very bad, taking much needed organic matter with it.
This problem can be alleviated by adding some organic matter to the soil and working it in. This will help hold the moisture where it is.
Silt is finer than sand and often contains organic matter. Because of its smaller size, it holds onto organic matter better than sand or clay. This is the most desirable of all of the soil types for crop production.
Clay is very fine particles of rock that usually never drains and can become very acidic. You need to add a lot of organic matter to the soil in order for it to be usable for most plants. Some, however, thrive in this type of environment. Rhododendrons, laurels and azaleas all do very well in the acidic clay soils in my area (Western North Carolina), along with blueberries. They love a pH of 4.5 to 6.5. In other parts of the country, you may need to adjust your pH for these crops.
I’ve mentioned organic matter several times now and some of you may be wondering what it is. Organic matter is any plant material that you can use to improve your garden and benefit your plants.
Compost can be made at any time by anyone. It can be as simple as keeping your kitchen scraps in a bucket and letting them decompose, or as complicated as a three station compost bin.
In the case of a three station compost bin, you would add all your materials to the first bin the first year. In year two, you would leave bin one alone and add all your kitchen/yard scraps to bin two. Then in year three, you leave bin two alone, add your materials to bin three and start using the rich compost created in bin one. There are other ways to0 make compost, such as the quick method described here.
Other organic matter can be in the form of mulch. One of my favorites is pine bark mulch. It has just the right pH for acidic soils, allows drainage while retaining moisture and is inexpensive. You can get it at most any garden supply store.
Don’t get pine bark nuggets – it’ll be years before they are of any benefit to you. And don’t use pine sawdust unless it’s well rotted. Fresh pine sawdust will take every bit of nitrogen out of the ground. If you must use it, be sure to compensate for the loss of nitrogen.
Another way to add organic matter is to plant cover crops (aka “green manure”). A cover crop is a crop that is planted just for tilling back into the soil therefore adding vital nutrients. Clover, buckwheat and fava beans have been used successfully. These have the added benefit of adding much needed nitrogen to the soil.
Finally, in the wood category is biochar. Biochar is charred wood that holds onto nutrients in the soil and keeps it usable for many years. It’s been used since the time of the Incas and Mayans of Central and South America and those soils they improved at that time are still viable to this day. You can read more about biochar here.
No matter what your soil type, there is always a way to fix it, even if your solution is raised garden beds. Get a soil test done today (many county extension services offer it free) and find out your soil type.
Have you used any of these natural solutions for soil problems? What worked for you?